LA Auto show preview: Big SUVs, Jeep Gladiator pickup

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Los Angeles — The Los Angeles Auto Show has traditionally favored introductions of environmentally conscious electric cars and luxury chariots, given the Golden State’s reputation for green regulation and greenback-spending high-rollers.

But with America’s obsession with SUVs unabated, this year’s extravaganza looks to be one of the premier mainstream exhibits of the North American season. It is brimming with meat-and-potatoes reveals to suit every American taste. 

The meatiest debut of all Wednesday is the Jeep Gladiator pickup.


This wildly anticipated truck will do battle in the reinvigorated midsize pickup segment. The segment includes SUV-based entries like the unibody Honda Ridgeline, as well as body-on-frame Detroit iron like the Chevy Colorado and Ford Ranger. The Jeep is definitely of the latter variety.

Pictures leaked ahead of Gladiator's LA debut show a vehicle that closely hews to the legendary Wrangler rock-kicker's DNA: Familiar upright face with round headlights and seven-slot grille. Sahara and Rubicon trims. Folding front windshield and removable roof A choice of 3.6-liter V-6 or 3.0-liter diesel powerplants. Locking differential for climbing Mt. Rushmore. The works.

LA's playbill is expected to be dominated by other sport-utility debuts: the production version of the three-row Lincoln Aviator, Honda's new Passport, Hyundai’s first-ever three-row SUV, BMW's X7 three-row mega-crossover, as well as new versions of the Fiat 500X and Kia Soul.

Staying true to LA's past, Audi is expected to show a speedy, new e-tron electric concept during media reveals, and hometown favorite Tesla will make a rare show appearance. Premium carmaker Volvo boasts "it will show nothing," choosing instead to promote its subscription service for upscale customers.

Hyundai Palisade teaser

At a time when traditional auto shows are under pressure as carmakers find independent venues to introduce new vehicles (Detroit, Paris and Geneva have all lost exhibitors), Los Angeles has emerged as a must-attend show.

"Auto shows aren't going away, there are just fewer of them," said LA-based auto analyst Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book. "With the decline of Chicago and automaker pullouts in Detroit, we are down to two major (North American) shows. Every brand wants to sell in LA and New York."

With California and New York state combining for 40 percent of luxury U.S. auto sales, LA and its New York City counterpart in March have always been the go-to forums for premium auto debuts. With BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Porsche, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, Maserati and Ferrari all having departed Motown, LA is essential to foreign automakers to market their latest wares.

Hollywood celebs gotta spend their millions, so the show will feature exotic new toys — from Mercedes AMG track-weapons to a topless BMW 8-series. 

Significantly, Porsche is expected to make the world debut of its latest, iconic 911 sports car — not in Germany, but here in LA. The Porsche may be the best-selling sports car in Germany, but California accounts for a quarter of its U.S. sales.

Volvo's novel "This is not a car" display is a statement about automakers transitioning to subscription and autonomous service. "Volvo Cars will show a number of interactive demonstrations of connectivity services, such as in-car delivery, car sharing, its vision for autonomous driving ... and the car subscription service Care by Volvo," the company said.

Still, the number of mainstream vehicle debuts are eye-opening. Consumers have a voracious appetite for SUVs and manufacturers are trying to keep up.

"Automakers are still working in reaction to the shift to SUVs from sedans," said IHS auto analyst Stephanie Brinley. "That process is still ongoing."

The VW Beetle Final Edition brings and end to Bug production. It features classic chrome details and comes in coupe or convertible.

A parade of three-row SUVs will bow in LA including first-ever big ute offerings from Hyundai (the Palisade), BMW (the X7, which makes its production debut) and Lincoln, whose Aviator SUV will spread its three rows over a crossover unibody instead of its stylish big brother's Ford F-150 truck frame.

Speaking of three-row utes, Honda is adding fourth SUV in its lineup — the Passport, a shortened, two-row version of its popular three-row Pilot. If the name Passport sounds familiar, that's because Honda sold a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo under that name from 1993 through 2002.

"The Passport is really cool and it speaks to the idea that you can't have enough crossovers," says KBB's Brauer. "It's more proof that SUVs are critical to automakers. A lack of success in the SUV market will make or break an automaker. The Palisade, for example, is critical to Hyundai because they have been too sedan-dependent."

The granola crowd will still get plenty to munch on, including Audi's sleek GT concept, a battery-powered Kia Soul and a rumored Mitsubishi EV concept. But electrics are no longer just a Left Coast thing. Governments across the globe are mandating them, and Tesla's Model 3 EV is the best-selling luxury vehicle in America.

"EVs are just part of the world now," said Brinley. "They are part of the automotive landscape — not just for the California market anymore."

Jeep showed a concept version of the Gladiator pickup at the 2005 Detroit auto show. Leaked spy photos show that the production version to be shown this week is not appreciably different, except for a more current grille.

Despite the flood of SUVs in LA and 60 vehicle debuts, she is not convinced that the show is stealing from Detroit. She says the Motor City will still be the site of important global reveals, given the presence of major automakers like General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Volkswagen, Toyota and Honda. Indeed, she said that many of of LA's luxury offerings first debuted in non-show venues.

"The Audi e-tron crossover debuted to media in San Francisco," she said. "And the BMW Z4 M40i Roadster we first saw at the Pebble Beach Concours." 

The sexy Roadster will be welcome eye-candy to those looking for something other than a five-door SUV. Mazda is expected to show its remade Mazda 3 compact, based on a stunning Kai concept at last year's show that made onlookers weak in the knees. 

Toyota will update its funky-looking Prius. And LA will be the VW Beetle's swan song. With production ending for the world's most famous bug, look for the "Final Edition" trim.

LA Show schedule

Where: Los Angeles Convention Center
Today through Thursday: "Automobility LA" technology conference
Wednesday and Thursday: New-car reveals to media
Wednesday: North American Car of the Year finalists announced
Thursday: Green Car Awards
Friday through Dec. 9: Show open to the public
Schedule and ticket information:

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.